Miller on the Doctrine of Discovery

The Doctrine of Discovery was an international legal principle which allowed European settlers to claim any lands they ‘discovered’ from the indigenous peoples living there.This attitude, which seems shocking today, lies behind much of the call for restitution of objects and cultural heritage today. Robert J. Miller (Lewis & Clark Law School) has posted “Christianity, American Indians, and the Doctrine of Discovery.” 

The European countries that explored and colonized North America utilized the international law Doctrine of Discovery to claim the sovereign, property, and human rights of Indigenous peoples. Discovery was developed primarily in the fifteenth century by Spain, Portugal, England, and the Church and was designed to control the acquisition of non-European lands. The assumed superiority of European religions and civilizations played a major role in justifying Discovery. Starting with the fifteenth century papal bulls and the later English Royal charters, the primary goals of colonization were alleged to be “propagating Christian Religion” and bringing “human civility” to the “pagan,” “heathen,” “Infidels and Savages” who “yet live[d] in Darkness and miserable ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.” The United States Supreme Court expressly adopted the Doctrine of Discovery in 1823 in Johnson v. M’Intosh and expressly relied on Christian religion and Euro-American civilization to justify its decision. The goals of, and the justifications for, Discovery continued to be part of United States Indian policy and Manifest Destiny until nearly the end of the twentieth century.

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